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European Convention on Human Rights

Volume 823: debated on Monday 18 July 2022


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Convention on Human Rights.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

Her Majesty’s Government are committed to remaining a state party to the European Convention on Human Rights and protecting all the rights set out in the convention.

My Lords, when the European Court of Human Rights halted the deportation of migrants to Rwanda, the Prime Minister and some of his government colleagues began considering withdrawing the United Kingdom from the European Convention on Human Rights. The convention is a major contributor to peace and democracy, and we cannot afford not to be part of it. However, if the Government will insist on pushing ahead with this reckless decision—and we have not had a denial from some of the candidates in the leadership race—is the Minister confident that such a move will not negatively impact the rights of vulnerable groups in the United Kingdom?

Her Majesty’s Government, with respect, are not pushing ahead with any reckless decision. The policy of the Government is to remain within the convention on human rights; speculation to the contrary is quite unfounded.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has been asked this Question many times and has said that it is the Government’s policy to remain inside the ECHR. However, scepticism and questions persist because a senior government Minister, the Attorney-General, has a number of times over the last week said that she wants to withdraw from the ECHR. What conversations has the Minister had with the Attorney-General in the last few days to resolve this?

I have had no conversations with the Attorney-General, and what the Attorney-General says or may have said in her capacity as a leadership contender is neither here nor there—as an unsuccessful leadership contender, I hasten to add. We need to get this straight. Unless we can define the boundaries of the debate we are about to have, we will be in a very unsatisfactory place. We are talking about the mechanisms of the convention—we are not talking about whether we should be in the convention or not. I remind the House that the UK has the best record of all member states within the convention; we are a party to, I think, seven United Nations conventions on human rights; we are very active in the Council of Europe in a number of respects; we fully support the ICC in its reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine; and there is no question of this fine tradition being mitigated, let alone abandoned.

The Minister is quite right that we need to be clear but unfortunately, only two of the five remaining candidates for the Tory leadership have been clear that they would not leave the convention. Liz Truss, who is still in the Government, has said that she would be prepared to leave the ECHR. Rishi Sunak and Kemi Badenoch have failed to clarify their positions. Can the Minister be confident about the position of the Government from September, when he even has present Cabinet Ministers who do not agree with him?

The Government have set out their position in the manifesto upon which they were elected. There is no change to that manifesto.

My Lords, I, for one, am very grateful to the Minister for the clarity of his Answer. However, I am concerned that the more popular of the two candidates in the Conservative race for the premiership who have committed to staying in the ECHR has been subject to an absolutely disgraceful campaign of smearing in the right-wing press. Can the Minister give some fatherly advice to these candidates that when they launch Islamophobic and misogynistic attacks on each other, and when they attack human rights, it is bad for his party and for the country?

I am not in a position to give fatherly advice to anybody. The Government do not support misogynistic or Islamophobic attacks on anyone. I have set out as clearly as I can the Government’s policy, and I shall doggedly pursue that policy unless and until instructed to the contrary.

My Lords, it must be obvious that our suspicion stems from having had a lot of legislation come through this House that has shown no concern for human rights or political freedoms, which is what the ECHR is all about. How can we be sure about the next Prime Minister—a Tory party Prime Minister from the collection of leadership candidates that we are all horrified about?

The aim of the proposed legislation is to restore public confidence in the UK judiciary, to improve democratic accountability, to strengthen the right to free speech, to preserve the right to jury trial and to better protect journalists’ sources. I defy anyone in this House to vote against those objectives.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the trade and co-operation agreement which this country has with the European Union is contingent, from the European Union’s point of view, on our remaining in the convention on human rights? Can he give us the names of countries which have withdrawn from that convention?

The noble Lord is correct that there are references to the European Convention on Human Rights in the trade and co-operation agreement. We are not withdrawing from the convention—I do not know how many times I must say it before people understand the Government’s position. Since we are not withdrawing, the question of who has withdrawn or been expelled does not arise.

Does my noble friend agree that the European convention should be regarded as particularly precious by Conservatives, given the part that Winston Churchill and Lord Kilmuir played in devising it?

What do the Government mean by “mechanisms”? It seems to add something to the Minister’s answer that he is not categorically ruling out changes. What are those mechanisms?

The provisions in the Bill are designed, in the words of Clause 1(2), to clarify and rebalance. The relevant mechanisms are to make clear the respective roles of the UK judiciary and the Strasbourg court, of the judiciary and Parliament, and of rights on the one hand and responsibilities on the other. Those are the mechanisms which I hope we will debate in detail in due course.

My Lords, I recognise and acknowledge that the Minister has indicated that there will be no withdrawal from the ECHR. However, can he give an assurance to your Lordships’ House today that he, along with other Ministers, will work to ensure that we remain within the ECHR, because any withdrawal from it would be a flagrant undermining of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which is hardwired into the ECHR?

I will happily give the noble Baroness that assurance, and I assure your Lordships that I will work with any or all of you to ensure that this Bill meets such concerns as you may have, in so far as it is within my power to do so.

My Lords, the Minister is reassuringly adamant in his commitment to the convention. Can he assure the House about how he defends the export of asylum seekers to Rwanda in the face of the convention?

We are entirely satisfied that the Government’s policy on asylum seekers is in compliance with the convention. In this context, I do not think that I can add to that answer.

My Lords, it is right to look at the draft put forward by the Lord Chancellor, which makes it absolutely plain that the intention of the Government in that document is that we stay in the European Convention on Human Rights. The preciousness of that is absolutely clear, and I feel certain that a Conservative Government—and, I believe, a Labour Government—are unlikely to move away from it.

I respectfully agree, and I am particularly delighted to pay my personal respects to my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern following one of his last interventions in this House.